BY STEVEN JUPITER
When Jeanné Collins was a little girl in Indiana, she ran a “summer school” in her backyard. She was seven and charged even younger kids a quarter each to learn essentials like counting and coloring. “I already knew education was going to be my path,” she said recently, on the eve of her retirement as Superintendent of the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union (RNESU), a position in which she was responsible for all the public schools in Brandon, Pittsford, Goshen, Whiting, Leicester, Sudbury, and Chittenden.
It’s never a given that a childhood ambition will be realized. Still, Collins went on to earn a B.A. in elementary education/speech pathology from Purdue University and an M.A. in Special Education from the University of Northern Colorado. She ended up overseeing the education of thousands of students in a career spanning decades and stretching from Arizona to Vermont.
She arrived in Vermont in 1994 as Director of Special Services for Harwood Union High School in Washington County. She took the same position in the Burlington school system in 2000 and eventually became Superintendent there as well. In 2014, she was encouraged to apply for the Superintendent position at RNESU by Bill Mathis, an acquaintance who’d once held the job himself.
The school district has changed a lot since Collins took over. “When I got here, there were eleven school boards and forty-four board members. It was a huge challenge. Each board focused only on one school and didn’t have to consider the needs of other schools in the district. After Act 46 and unification, we consolidated all the boards into just one that now represents all the towns,” she said.
“The community, in general, was overwhelmingly for unification, but there was some resistance at the school level. I think, though, that it ended up creating more cohesion in the district. The Board now has to look at the bigger picture. And our faculty is now employed by the district rather than by individual schools,” she said. “So, if we have to reduce staff at one school, we can shift them somewhere else in the district. Before unification, they’d simply be let go.”
Demographics have also required major adjustments over the years. “Some parts of Vermont have seen growth, such as Chittenden County. But Rutland County has lost population. It became difficult to sustain a full elementary school in each town,” Collins said.
Three smaller grade schools—Whiting, Sudbury, and Leicester—thus became the Otter Valley Academy. Each school serves a different purpose. Leicester is a traditional K – 6. Whiting is now a full-time child-care center and pre-K program. And the Sudbury facility will soon reopen as a school for children with behavioral needs that can’t be met elsewhere in the district. Collins is especially proud of the Whiting program. “It’s been a great success and really fulfills a community need,” she said.
Pausing to consider the district’s future, Collins identified two key challenges: technology and equity/inclusivity. “COVID forced us to rely on technology in ways we hadn’t before. There’s really no going back now. It’s here to stay, and we need to teach our kids and faculty how to use it to supplement in-person instruction,” she said. To that end, the RNESU has hired IT professionals to provide continued guidance.
As for equity, Collins acknowledges that it’s been a contentious issue in the district over the past few years and one that hits home with her: “I’m the adoptive mother of five Vietnamese kids, one of whom is openly gay. I’ve witnessed firsthand what kids from marginalized communities go through. I’ve wanted to create a culture of belonging. But we’re not going to get the work done until we walk through the fire together.”
An equity audit for the district is due to be released this fall. “Despite some very public conflicts on the School Board, I feel good about how we’ve opened the door to that conversation,” Collins added. “I am proud, for example, that all students wear the same color gown at graduation now. Students are no longer categorized by gender during the ceremony.”
In a hypothetical scenario where she had unlimited resources to shape the district, Collins said she’d expand opportunities for every student at OVUHS to experience hands-on learning. “We’ve built schools to funnel students in particular directions. We need to ‘unfunnel’ them. Give them time to explore.”
The district has hired a new Work-Based Learning Coordinator to help students consider paths after Otter Valley besides college. “A large segment of our student population will end up in careers that don’t require college degrees. We’ve got to do a better job of supporting them,” said Collins.
For her successor, Collins offered the following advice: “Get out into the community. This district is very hands-on. You have to build partnerships and trust. You have to show up and listen. I didn’t do that enough. I didn’t listen enough to the kids themselves.”
Collins recently got married and plans to move to South Carolina. She won’t completely sever professional ties with Vermont, however, as she will continue to mentor educational leaders in the state. She will also be Associate Executive Director of the Horace Mann League, a national organization dedicated to public education.
All of this is totally in keeping with the trajectory of her life so far. Jeanné Collins became an educator before the age of ten, and there’s no way she will stop now.